[With un-edited Life advice from a cop-cabbie, a rich shopgirl and Brian, the healer]
So I had hunted down this little quirky store at Kampong Glam after a fair bit of virtual recce, from Shanghai. And was pleased as punch at finding it, at last. Entering, I saw little cat things all over her lovely little ‘Alice in Wonderland’ type of a store – hair pins, and lapel pins, and greeting cards, and bags and notebooks, all engraved or embroidered with little cats and kitties in various poses, all giving you the “mischievious-cat-look”. A shop run and owned by a cat-lady, rich shop-girl, with an easy-peasy walk-in-the-park vibe to life.
“Oh, I love cats” she said, reading my thoughts about a store full of everything feline. “And I just like to collect, curate and sell all this stuff, because, well, I like it, you know, so I do.” A big smile. “And just that, I’ve never had to worry about earning money, so I really feel for people like…. (a pause, here, where she was about to say “you” – to me, that is).. you know people who have to work for their money.” Right. We get that. That was deep, indeed.
That’s Singapore for you – moneyed, gentrified and probably the most sorted Asian nation – where you are either born into money, or acquire it. And where the other (less privileged) half lives across the other half of the world, out of sight, not right here, in their face.
“That’s why I volunteer at shelters and for the homeless, because you know, it’s easy when you come from money, as I do –back from Down Under. We just believe in chilling, surfing, taking it easy and not really you know, stressing over competition, and winning and making all this money” – and this, she said, with a slow Australian-Singaporean mixed accent, and without a hint of arrogance or pride. Just the sure knowledge that in her world, money was a given. Of course everyone has or should have money, -som and if they don’t, well, their forefathers didn’t do something right. And she helps people spend it.
As I was paying up and putting the little cat things into my bag (mostly gifts for friends), she says to me “don’t worry about career or money, hon; just you know, ease up on life, and yourself and do what comes best and most naturally to you” – waving a hand around to indicate that selling cat memorabilia might just be my life’s calling. Did I say I was worried about money? No, all I had done by way of provoking this little detail of life advice was to say that my life and work was fairly stressful because I worked in Capital Markets (I toned this down to Finance, after the first two times trying to explain what it is I do – sometimes, even I am at a loss as to what exactly do I do for a living), with demanding clients, who in turn had big monies at stake – only in response to her question on what did I do for a living. Because I was sauntering around Haji Lane on a Tuesday afternoon when the rest of the world was at work. I was on holiday, that’s why, silly.
So before you read on, this is going to be about food, books and unsolicited life advice. Why else do you think they call Singapore the melting pot of Asia? Sure there are the Indians, Malays, Chinese-Singaporeans who make up the core of its cultural and gastronomical milieu. For me, though, this melting pot was mostly about the food trail, the book trail and an Idiot’s Guide to Life, at once being served up by three very interesting and different Singaporeans, all of whom I managed to meet in the course of one afternoon’s walk at Haji Lane, in the Kampong Glam ‘hood.
But we’ll get to that, just yet. Now that we’ve got that out of the way (aka, this not your regular travelogue on the iconic Raffles Hotel or the Clarke Quay night life, or the boat-building (does the building have a name?) at Marina Bay Sands, or the Gardens by the Bay), let’s cut to the chase.
Getting in on a red-eye, and wanting to eat the entire forest for the tree (you get the analogy, don’t you?), the very first thing I did was head straight to Mustard – Singapore’s only Bengali-Punjabi restaurant that serves up the entire Bengali Raj-era multi-course meal (melting pot included) in one of the many ubiquitous and utterly avoidable Little India lanes. My host protested very loudly, not game to being dragged to Little India in the middle of the afternoon on a weekend, despite the promise of good old Punjabi food adulterated with Bengali flavours as he called it. He was right to protest. It turned out to be a tiny tiny place. With barely 6 tables, each seating not more than four at a time – for which you needed reservations and then a 45-60-minute wait for the food (I am told it is worth waiting for, but I shall never know now, will I?), after you secured your table. Excuse me – another hour after I get my table; who do you have manning the kitchen, a child? Hell, even I can prepare a 3-course meal in that time in my rather humble home kitchen! And so it was an Awadhi tandoor type forgettable place close by, picked out at random where one was served totally tasteless, factory-made Lego-type of food in less than 10 minutes, while one had wistful dreams of Koraishutir kochuri (spiced mashed green pea stuffed inside fluffed Indian bread) and aloor dom (spicy potatoes), Kosha Mangsho (lamb cooked on low heat and tenderized) and Machher jhol (Bengali fish curry), that would have ended with Gokul Pithe and Pati Shapta (Bengali desserts). Such is the fate of a Bengali separated from her state’s food!
Food disappointments need to be compensated elsewhere. So next came the book trail that led straight to ‘Books Actually’ (no credit to you, Hugh Grant) at Tiong Bahru (the new artsy ‘hood of Singapore), preceded by a short stop over at Strangelets – which had just started its Closing Down sale that day. Not having much luck today, were we?!
If any of you Singaporeans are reading this, head to Strangelets like right now, in your jammies. Everything is half off and their china is to die for. And you wonder why a girl who lives in China wants to buy china from Singapore?! Aah punny indeed!
‘Books Actually’ is one of Singapore’s only indie bookstore, which has retained its quiet, bookstore-ish charm and lives up to its claim of housing abstract and critics’ choices of books, unlike the franchise stores – which made it totally worth the while going round and round in circles from the Tiong Bahru MTR just to hunt it down. I was swept away by the Math Press Publishing house, and its utterly fascinating books – original content and titles, interesting Asian writers, including poetry anthologies by contemporary Singaporean poets! Here’s a publishing house which dares to publish poetry books. Utter respect and then some! Thank the good Lord there was no pulp fiction here of the newstand-airport trash kind. Sometimes one does wonder where have all the discerning readers, and the good writers gone, or has our digital attention span fallen to that of a buzzing fly’s that we can’t read good books anymore?
But the best thing about Books Actually? It has a vending machine outside the store dispensing un-named paper-wrapped books with the book covers hidden, on purpose, of course. That’s the idea, silly! So for a neat SGD 19.00 slid into the vending machine, I get this mystery book – my own custom version of a mysterious blind date!
The afternoon’s food disaster had to be made up now, with dinner at a well chosen venue. So it was straight to the very atmospheric heritage property, Chijmes and to Indo-Chine in there.
I would have liked a nice punchy Singapore Sling on this about-to-rain evening. What, no Singapore Sling in Singapore?? You’ve got to be kidding me! “Well, ma’am”, the cheeky server says “technically you are in Vietnam/ Cambodia now – Indo-Chine, you see?” Humor and presence of mind – I’ll give you that, kid. Get me some ice-cold Tiger beer then. Accompanying the Tiger, we bee-lined for the spicy salmon tartare for starters, followed by the very intriguing and very unusual Vietnamese-coffee-rubbed chicken wings (all you caffeine-addict carnivores, listen up!), and for the mains, spicy Cambodian chilli and basil chicken, with a lemongrass crème brulee for dessert, to round it out nicely, for the Bengali sweet tooth. Outstanding food. One for the Repeat list.
Day Two dawns bright and early and humid. It’s a Kampong Glam day today! But food before culture (or “kaalchaar” as the gentrified Calcuttan would say).
So my gracious host arranged for yet another atmospheric morning at Dempsey Hill, close to Holland Village – a cluster of restaurants, cafes, antique shops, scattered up and down small inclines, just beyond the edge of the Botanical Gardens, and surrounded by tropical woodlands. Lovely and beyond atmospheric – just my kind of a place! At first, one decided to play house, quite literally. Well, breakfast at The Dempsey House. But, kickass as their placemats were,
(Take that, Pau, Eh!!), and as alluring the idea of having a morning meal in the woods seemed, the service dug dirt – 45 minutes later, when not even a cup of coffee nor a glass of water had made it to our table, we headed off to Jones, the Grocer with the defiant stomp-off typical to unhappy campers.
Jones was this lovely, loud, buzzing-with-expats industrial-spacey organic grocer’s-restaurant where, over Saturday brunch, this Bengali whose childhood summers were spent in the Dooars of Bengal and in Darjeeling, found her favorite Makaibari Spring Blossom and Summer flush tea varietals, straight from the estates of Darjeeling! Joy is me. Tea is me. Ta-da!!
So, a regular Saturday brunch is thus made remarkable by the rare sighting of the Makaibari, and a serial drinking of the beautiful hoppy Trappist beer called ‘Duel’, bottled in Oz, and perfect for a humid summer’s day in Singapore… Oh, I will hunt you down, Duel, whatever it takes!
Host decided to go back and catch a nice afternoon nap on a hot summer’s day after a rather satisfying brunch, and I decided to do the Malay-Arab quarters of Kampong Glam.
Imminently Instagrammable! Row upon row of colourful houses with contrasting window shutters… charming and an old-world classic.
Haji Lane and Bali Lane are the two lanes which are not to be missed. Full of quirky little shops and cafes and restaurant-bars. By day, the street is all about the bohemian hippy-chic shopper looking for something a little out of the ordinary, and by night, the street turns into the bar street of Kampong Glam.
I was ferried to Kampong Glam by a very chatty cab driver – 45 years old, father of four, and erstwhile cop, who gave up his cop-life to share parental duties with the wife. Rather amazing in this day and age, wouldn’t you agree? A really gentle soul, who called me “sister” and had a quiet pride in his city and being Singaporean, admitting that the only downside to it was that it was an expensive city, if you wanted to live and eat well. Yes, we know.
Of course I tell him what a lovely person and father he is. To which he asks how many kids do I have. I say “None”. And tell him I am still single, not married. And I am the same age as him. Most people who hear this, go into instant sympathy mode or curiosity mode. Not him! He smiled at me and said “but you look like you are having fun, the time of your life – being independent, travelling the world, no one to answer to, no nappies to pick up, no husband’s moods to pander to.. and maybe that’s why you look 10 years younger than you are!” I was so relieved at not having to explain my single status at 45, that I beamed widely at him. And just as he pulled up at the kerbside of Kampong Glam, he said “You know, sister, when the time is right for you, it will all come together. Not everyone has to have kids, not everyone has to marry. The spark in your eyes and your smile is important – whatever keeps that alive in you, is your destiny” Such wise words and life advice, my friend! And then he “God-blessed” me and sped away.
Let loose on Haji Lane, I went around to Dulcet Fig and Mondays Off and Rude Dog (with a not-so-rude-dog in it),
and oh, just all the little shops that add so much character to this street, with the colourful shutters and painted door panels and posing tourists. The street is an Instagrammer’s delight and a quirky shopper’s heaven – with interesting accessories (of the cat lapel-pin kind), Korean and Japanese fashion, lots of eyewear stores of the wooden frame kind (well you need the cool shades in Singapore’s tropical summer), interesting hand-crafted jewellery stores by independent Singaporean designers, really stylish swimwear stores, where I got tempted into buying swimwear for which I now need desperately to lose the winter pounds!
My last stop at Haji Lane was Brian’s ‘Life by Design’ Consultancy – a curio store for the new-age spiritualists in you. I love these kind of stores for my belief in the metaphysical and the other (better) world, of which I have found none in Shanghai in over 5 years. Eagerly and greedily I stumbled in; Brian the owner was most helpful and chatty, we spoke about this and that, the Universe’s design for each of us, life/ lives and the path (if you believe in that sort of thing, which I do), and I found him to be a very practical, grounded spiritualist. Not the dread-locked expat-living-in-Bali-for-6 months kind, but one whose advice and reading is grounded in the reality of the world we live in. He gave up his life as an educator, to pursue his passion of making the spiritual pursuit his full-time vocation. After chatting for an hour and a half, I came away with a bag full of Zen incense from Japan, a tarot card set, a couple more interesting books by local writers and something to help me along my journey of transition that I find myself in… relocating in a few months, figuring out what next, and trying to divine my real purpose and calling. Brian was lovely, pleasant, smiley and advised me gently about not falling into the trap of listening to the mind, over the voice of the spirit, urging me to chase my life’s audacious dreams full throttle, and not to settle into the comfortably numb zone of the career, as it were. His big little words to me were “If it feels right, do it. If it doesn’t feel right here (patting his heart), then don’t. You already know what to do, you just don’t have the courage for it, YET. Listen to your intuition more, and ignore the voice of reason sometimes – the Universe will support you, and look after you”.
The hot summer’s day needed cooling down. Not having gone quay-side at all this time, the evening’s dinner was at Monti (at Fullerton Pavillion by Collyers Quay), watching the big and small boats anchored at the quay or sailing slowly past the big French windows, while we savoured some excellent smoked swordfish carpaccio, freshly shucked mussels, the house specialty Burrata (which was to die for), and listened to the loud, live jazz band drumming it up on a breezy Saturday night.
Singapore, you do sling it, in style.
So what if there is no Benedictine in your Sling, you’ve got plenty more sass where it comes from! Gin I tell you so!
Notes for Next Time
Highlights on the food trail: Jones the Grocer at Dempsey Hill; Indo-Chine at Chijmes, Yantra (Indian restaurant run by Hemant Oberoi), Monti at Collyers Quay Highlights on the shopping trail: Books Actually, Dulcet Fig, Mondays Off, Strangelets (across Haji Lane, Bali Lane and Tiong Bahru) What to come back for (food-wise): Aura’s rooftop restaurant-bar at the National Gallery, Violet Oon’s Kitchen (also at National Gallery – this one has a wait of about 2 weeks even on a weekday, I was told, upon calling for reservations!), Kinki, on top of Monti – ok, so that didn’t come out quite as I intended, but Kinki has the best sushi in town, I am told! What to come back for (sauntering-wise): An entire morning at Botanical Gardens and lunch at Botanico or Garage inside of it, more sauntering around Haji Lane and Bali Lane in Kampong Glam, do the Tiong Bahru heritage walk, gaze at the Malay-Peranakan houses at Joo Chiat, and devour more books at Books Actually!]